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Making Life Work with Bipolar Disorder: Hannah Chou's Story

Here’s a thing about people with bipolar disorder: you might not know they suffer from it. Some of my friends, especially those who didn’t work closely with me, hadn’t notice that I am different until I told them. “Really?! But you look so normal to me,” they would say. Their response is understandable because, on the outside, I look like anybody else - I can work, I can function independently, I can joke. I can do almost everything that most people do, except maybe dance on TikTok because I’m terrible at it.

But on the inside, that’s a different story. Ever since I was a kid, I’d always been more emotionally sensitive. When I was happy, I could be super-duper happy. But when I was sad, I could be really really depressed. At that time, I didn’t think too much about this because, for me, this was normal. Perhaps because I was also living with a stay-at-home mother who has bipolar 1.

It was only in 2018 that I was diagnosed with bipolar 2. Bipolar 2 is one type of bipolar disorder that is associated with episodes of mood swings, ranging from hypomania to major depression. People with bipolar 2 might have manic episode in one day, when they would have very high energy, but have depressive episode in the next day, when they would have low energy, low motivation, and even lose interest in daily activities.

When I heard the diagnosis, my head felt like it exploded with tons of questions: Would I be like mom? Would I always be dependent on other people? Does it mean I cannot work? Later my concerns gradually subsided, mostly because I asked my psychiatrist a lot of questions and learned more about my condition by reseaching for information, such as the distinction between bipolar 1 and 2 (thankfully, the latter is supposedly milder).

 

Hannah Chou of Klook

Hannah diagnosed with bipolar II in 2018

 

It didn’t mean I fully accepted my condition. I felt okay, so I didn’t want to take my medication. I also didn’t tell anybody about this, including my boss at work at that time. Partly because I hadn’t come to terms with it, and partly because I didn’t know what would happen if I revealed my condition. What if they decided they didn’t want to work with me? What if they thought I wasn’t capable? What if they bullied me?

I didn’t want to take that risk, so I decided to keep it to myself and act normal. It turned out to be a huge mistake.

Dilemma at work: to open up or not?

I’ve been quite lucky that I had really good managers in my last two jobs. My manager at my previous job was very kind and understanding, but I still decided to not tell her about my condition. At first, everything went okay. Then came a depressive period and it was really hard. It reached a point when I wasn’t fit for work because I was too depressed for months. Yet I couldn’t muster the courage to tell anybody, including my boss, because I was afraid of how she would perceive me.

When things got to the worst point, I knew I could not keep it a secret forever and let my boss know about my condition, as it was clear that I needed a break from work to recover. From my talk with her and the HR team, it’s obvious that keeping my condition a secret was a mistake, as they might have been able to provide some support to me. But I learned my lesson and took a different approach when I joined Klook.

Thankfully at Klook, I have a really understanding manager - George Cheung. When I shared about my condition with him, he shared his personal experience with me and showed that he empathized with my situation. He’s also been very accommodating regarding my personal needs – like when I explained my need to start my work shift earlier for personal reasons, he agreed to it right away and even helped me talk with Yat Lam, who is our business unit head

Hannah with her Klook team

Hannah (sitting on the left), is now feeling comfortable to share about her illness with her team

 

He also really cares about my mental state and knows how to communicate effectively with me, which is something that I very much appreciate. George and Yat help me understand one important thing about our professional life: our relationship with the people we work with is one of the most important things in our careers. We spend a lot of time with them - 40 hours a week - and if we don’t have a good relationship with them, it’s just no fun.

A great thing about Klook is that I think people here are really nice in a way that they try to be empathetic to one another. They see you as a human being, not as just someone who performs tasks in a team and that’s it. It allows me to work comfortably with my bipolar disorder, as I know I don’t have to worry excessively about people's opinions of me here.

 

Hannah with her coworker

Hannah with her coworker at Klook

 

It doesn’t mean I have proactively told all people I know at work about my condition, but would instead share if a topic on mental health popped up in a conversation or when people asked. 

I’m glad that I have reached a point where I can be more comfortable with my illness and open up to others about it. Years of medication and undergoing regular therapy have allowed me to manage my condition better, giving me a sense of control over things, which is a pretty good feeling.

 

Raising Awareness

Of course, not everyone with bipolar disorder has reached a level of acceptance like I have. I’m lucky that my experience taught me to be open about my illness and that I have met good people at work, allowing me to do that without too much worry. But not everyone with similar conditions would be as fortunate. 

People should know that it’s not easy to open up about a mental health issue. There’s always a worry about how others might perceive us when they know about our conditions, especially those that do not know us well. Even when I was selective about who to be honest about my condition with, I would still hear things that hurt me, though they could come with good intentions. 

I believe this is due to a lack of awareness about bipolar disorder and perpetuating misperception about it. This is why I decided to share my story to help educate people and hopefully make them more caring and empathetic towards those with mental conditions when they choose to open up. 

 

Hannah as a host for Hong Kong townhall

Hannah (right) as a host for Hong Kong townhall

 

I’m also writing this to my peers with similar conditions so they know they are not alone. All this might sound cliche, but I realize just how important it is to not feel alone and to be encouraged when I read others’ writing about their experiences living with bipolar disorder. 

The pandemic has cast a spotlight on mental wellness, and that’s a good start. Society has started to acknowledge that mental health is a serious topic, which is reflected in the corporate world. Companies including Klook are making employees’ mental well-being a priority. 

Last year, I used one of our benefits at Klook, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a free confidential counseling service program. I believe it’s an important benefit for Klookers to get help early in a safe manner. I hope more employers would consider such support for employees, as some people might not have ready access to professional help.

 

 

Posted by Hannah Chou, Senior Business Analyst

 

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